Completed by the Spirit, Part 1: Five Propositions

This is the first part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I presented at a New Covenant Theology think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.

Ed Trefzger

Ed Trefzger

For the apostle Paul, the Mosaic law – or any external commands not grounded in the indicative of the Spirit of God given to dwell in the believer – is antithetical to our growth in holiness; rather it is the Holy Spirit who is transforming the believer from “one degree of glory to another,’ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Paul´s teaching on the inability of the law to effectively combat sin in the life of the Christian has been distorted by many, resulting in an improper focus on law that continues to enslave believers in sin.[1] Perhaps Paul´s exasperated exclamation and rhetorical questions to the “foolish’ Galatians is summary enough of Paul´s view of the law:

[2] Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? [3] Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? [4] Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? [5] Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— [6] just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’? (Galatians 3:2–6)

“Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?’ That antithesis – the Spirit and the flesh – draws the battle lines for Paul between those who would have believers continuing as slaves to sin instead of living as slaves to Christ and reaping the fruit of the Spirit. It is, as Paul tells the Thessalonians, the will of God that they – that we – be sanctified, “because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth’ (2 Thessalonians 2:13). God did not choose believers to be sanctified by the law; God did not choose believers to be sanctified by their own actions, behavior modification or self-help techniques; God chose believers to be sanctified by the Spirit of Christ via the gospel of Christ.

For the believer, there is an initial positional sanctification: we have been set apart as holy by God at our regeneration. There is also a final sanctification, or glorification: we will be holy and blameless and spotless. “And I am sure of this,’ Paul writes, “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:6). But what comes between? Thomas Schreiner describes the tension between these two states and the believer´s existence between these two states:

Believers are already in the realm of the holy, but on the last day, they will be transformed so that they are without sin. Paul does not explain how this transformation will occur; though it seems that it will take place when Christ returns. … A tension emerges in Paul´s thought. One the one hand, it seems that the eschatological completion of holiness cannot be sundered from progress in holiness in this life; on the other hand, Paul recognizes that the work of holiness will not be accomplished in this life. He uses a future tense to assure them that God will sanctify them completely. … The already–not yet dimension of Paul´s eschatology provides the most satisfactory solution. Believers are in the process of sanctification now, but they are not yet perfect. They long for the day when God´s promise of perfecting them in holiness will be consummated.[2]

Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes that “process of sanctification now’ in this way:

So then, I suggest to you that this will do as a good definition of sanctification: it is ‘that gracious and continuous operation of the Holy Spirit by which He delivers the justified sinner from the pollution of sin, renews his whole nature in the image of God and enables him to perform good works.´ Let me make that clear: ‘It is that gracious and continuous operation of the Holy Spirit by which He delivers the justified sinner´—the one who is already justified—‘from the pollution of sin´—not from the guilt any longer, that has happened. Justification has taken care of that. He is declared just and righteous, the guilt has been dealt with. Now we are concerned more about the power and the pollution of sin—‘renews his whole nature in the image of God and enables him to perform good works.´[3]

Thus for the purposes of this series of articles, we shall use the term “sanctification’ in the sense of a growth in holiness: what has traditionally been called “progressive sanctification.’[4] However, because of the use of and the association with the term “progressive sanctification’ with those who would also advocate the “third use of the law’ as part of that growth, we will not use that term here, but instead will use “sanctification’ – and its Greek “hagiasmos” – as interchangeable with a “growth in holiness,’ recognizing that this is the most common use of the term in the New Testament.[5]

With that eschatological trajectory in mind – our final complete holiness – we will focus on the sanctification – the growth in holiness – that should be the life story of all Christians, a life story that requires a fervent belief in the gospel and a trust in the Spirit for that sanctification. It is God who justifies and God who glorifies (Romans 8:30) and most assuredly, it is God who sanctifies by His Spirit  (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

To show how Paul views this growth in holiness – this ongoing work of sanctification before that final glorification – this series will look at five propositions of Paul´s theology. First, is that the law cannot cope with sin. Second, the love that is intrinsic to God and which flows only from God – the love brought by the indwelling Holy Spirit – fulfills the law. Third, that it is the Spirit that produces fruit in the believer while the law in our remaining sinful flesh can produce only that which it has power to produce: sin. Fourth, that sanctification results from our union with Christ, exhorted by what it means to be Christ-like. Fifth, that while Paul gives us imperatives, commands and exhortations, they are not themselves laws and are not given as laws or in the category of law, because they are imperatives that are only achieved by the indicative of our reliance upon Christ and our position in Christ.

To summarize, the battle for our sanctification is between the Spirit and the flesh. It is not – and cannot – be the law battling against our sinful flesh. Using the law to combat sin pours gasoline upon the sinful passions of the flesh, a flesh we will inhabit until the day we meet Christ face to face and be raised like Him. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his’ (Romans 6:5).

That eschatological, glorified state is where we´ll begin next time.

Up and Coming: Completed by the Spirit, Part 2: A Resurrection Like His

 

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[1] This is a reference to the “third use of the law,’ the belief that the “Moral Law’ or the Decalogue remains a “perfect rule of righteousness’ for the believer, such as is stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith and its later derivative, the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith.

[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 374–5.

[3] David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God the Holy Spirit: Great Doctrines of the Bible (Great Doctrines of the Bible Series, Vol 2)

(Wheaton, Ill.: Crossways Books, 1997). 195.

[4] For example, Robert L. Reymond in A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Second Edition)

(Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1998) defines progressive sanctification as one “understood negatively in terms of putting to death the deeds of the flesh which still remain in him and positively in terms of growth in all saving graces.’ (p. 768–769). Reymond then goes on for 12 more pages defending the use of the Decalogue as the as “the moral law of God, which Christians are to obey.’

Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith quite sweetly posits that “They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ´s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord’ (XIII/i). Yet that same confession describes asserts that the law “doth forever bind all’ (XIX/v), the words of Paul in Scripture notwithstanding.

[5] William D. Mounce says of hagiasmos that the word, “is generally used in the NT the moral sense, referring to the process (or the final result of that process) of making pure or holy. It is like a growing fruit that results in eternal life.’ Mounce´s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words

(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006). 338.